Thousands of tourists and pilgrims gathered in Bethlehem, a small city in the West Bank, for Christmas, bringing long-missed holiday cheer to the historic birthplace of Jesus Christ.
7,000 tourists arrived early Saturday evening, and hundreds added to the number who attended midnight Mass. Officials estimate that 30,000 people are expected to visit Bethlehem over Christmas --10,000 more than last year -- but nowhere near 150,000 back in 1990 during the holidays.
Since the outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian fight in September 2000, the stone-built town has been intermittently turned into a war zone. However, Israel’s summer withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the sharp drop of violence this year placed festive spirits in Bethlehem, the Associated Press reported.
In an annual Christmas sermon in Bethlehem Sunday, the top Roman Catholic official in Jerusalem urged political leaders not to kill but to "love each other."
"God created you not to fear or to kill each other but to love each other, to build and to cooperate together," Latin patriarch Michel Sabbah said to worshippers that included Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a muslim, at the Church of the Nativity, according to Agence France-Presse.
To the political leaders, he added "Our Holy Land thirsts to recover peace and holiness."
Reminders that show that the conflict has yet to be resolved regard the concrete separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, aimed at preventing terrorist attacks on Israelis, but has prevented tourists from walking on biblical routes that may have been used by Jesus and Mary, re-routing them to Israeli checkpoints.
According to Reuters, Israel's army has eased restrictions to allow foreigners as well as Israeli Christians and Palestinian Christians from the West Bank and Gaza to visit the town.
However, the Bethlehem governor Salah Tamari said the barrier between Israel and the West Bank transformed Bethlehem into a "big prison," but, nonetheless, asked Christians to celebrate Christmas.
"Even though the circumstances are very harsh with the wall and the restrictions, the Palestinian people can still celebrate," he said to AFP. "This Christmas is not just for the Christians of Bethlehem but a time of celebration for all Christians."
Sabbah similarly objects to the barrier and said "Nobody needs checkpoints in the Holy Land. This is the Holy Land and it should be treated as a holy area," adding that he hoped it would remain open throughout the year so pilgrims can freely cross into Bethlehem from Jerusalem, just north of Jesus' birthplace.
Meanwhile, both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said they are committed to peacemaking in 2006.
Abbas urged both Israel and the international community to help "make 2006 a year of making peace in this holy land." While Sharon called local Christian leaders on Saturday after wishing them a merry Christmas, and said that he hopes that the new year will bring Israelis and Palestinians peace and security.
"We all need [peace] and I intend to make every effort to reach it," AP reported Sharon's statement as saying.
Across the Mediterranean, Pope Benedict offered a Christmas prayer for peace in the Holy Land.
"On this night, when we look toward Bethlehem, let us pray in a special way for the birthplace of our Redeemer and for the men and women who live and suffer there," the pontiff said. "We wish to pray for peace in the Holy Land. […] Let your light shine upon it! Let it know peace!"